Sometimes, Transparent can be a remarkably opaque show. The flashbacks, the imagistic storytelling, the dreamy interludes, the bits where it’s just Leslie and Ali sitting on the floor writing poetry in dialogue together: For a series that can telegraph its messages pretty heavily, it’s also not afraid of ambiguity and indirection.
And sometimes, Transparent is the kind of show where a self-righteous academic can rail against the state of Israel in the middle of a Jewish gathering, and then be punished by literally falling into a massive hole in the ground … in an episode called “Oh Holy Night.” The show’s humor typically falls into the head-in-hands, wry-mouth-curling variety. This was a straight-up vengeful pratfall, and I loved it.
At the same time, the impressive thing about “Oh Holy Night” — and the whole depiction of Sarah Pfefferman’s “Hineni” event — is the exact ambiguity and complexity that Transparent often excels at depicting. The shabbat celebration is unquestionably beautiful, something that initially surprises Sarah as much as anyone. Much of the credit for the Hineni’s vibe goes to Duvid, the new cantor, whose soothing, meditative musical call to gather is one more example in a lengthy list of the ways this series uses music to great effect. I felt some sadness for the pupusa woman, who had to keep telling people that they weren’t tacos, but even so, the not-tacos went over well. There are a few brief shots of children stretching out their arms to play with the projections of nature images on the wall. And the ceremony itself is quite moving. Raquel may be questioning her faith, but her call to reflection, compassion, and thoughtfulness is simple and poignant.
So we witness this beautiful event, one that feels replete with goodwill and spirituality. And it is also, of course, a votive-filled testament to Sarah’s desire to stick it to the temple board and boost her own ego. She’s co-opting the temple’s more traditional paradigm with her own hipster-y California aesthetic, serving horchata out of massive glass jars and offering an espresso machine. She’s anxious about the event and whether anyone will come. She wants it to go well. All of which is endearing, and when it does go well, Sarah is understandably proud.
Then, as a part of Rabbi Raquel’s talk about the 36 people who sustain the world’s righteousness, a woman leans over and whispers to Sarah that if anyone were one of the 36, it must be Sarah, because the event is so beautiful. Sarah’s beaming face is not self-deprecating or mixed at all. Yes, she’s thinking. I am that awesome. To the episode’s credit, the event can contain both of those truths: It’s a beautiful spiritual ceremony, and it’s a massive celebration of Sarah Pfefferman’s bottomless need for approval.
At the Hineni, the rest of the Pfeffermans and Raquel also learn about Rita’s death. The episode opens with Josh going through Rita’s house, examining her huge collection of medications, flushing the toilet, glancing at an open container of Parmesan cheese. Later at the Pfefferman house, Maura arrives and finds Josh in bed, and he tells her what happened. Interestingly, although Transparent unequivocally depicted Rita’s death as a suicide, it leaves Josh and the family stuck with ambiguity. Josh admits to Maura that she may have jumped, and that she recently switched medications. But maybe she just fell over the railing. There’s no way for them to know, and the episode illustrates that point very well. Rita’s death resists any easy interpretation, making it much harder for the family to cope.
Before they go to the Hineni, Maura tries to comfort Josh at the house. Her apology for not being a good parent and her admission that they basically paid Rita to be Josh’s best friend fall flat. It feels easier for both of them when they turn and examine the house, which is still suffering from the horrible remodel Tammy inflicted on it during season one. The glass wall around the kitchen, in particular, reminds Maura of a California Pizza Kitchen — so she picks up a fireplace poker, puts a trash can over Josh’s head to protect his face, and starts swinging at it. Josh is aghast. Demo is a whole thing, he tells her; Jewish men don’t do demo. “I am a Jewish woman,” Maura corrects him. “And Jewish women do whatever the fuck they want.” The wall shatters.
When Josh and Maura show up at Sarah’s event, the news about Rita’s death begins to spread through the family, and Raquel, who’s at first shaken to even see Josh, is left standing in the background watching sadly as the family gathers together. None of the Pfeffermans really know what to say — except Shelly, of course. She’s pretty sure that Rita’s new medications are responsible. Thank you so much, Shelly. So glad to hear about your 126 Twitter followers.
Afterward, Josh talks it over separately with Raquel, who is similarly stumped by what to say or how to feel. It’s understandable — the death itself evades easy resolution. The life that came before it is even trickier. But nevertheless, the family’s response to Rita’s death is the one aspect of “Oh Holy Night” that really frustrated me, just as the family’s response to Rita has always been hard to fathom. It’s hard to know what to say to Josh because he lost a person who had a huge impact on him at a crucial stage of his life, and who, whatever else happened, was also the mother of his son. And she also abused him. Josh told Rita he forgave her, but that does not make what she did any easier to deal with.
Similarly, Maura apologizes to Josh for being such a bad parent. But her apology doesn’t make her ignorance about what happened to Josh as a teenager any less troubling, and it is one place where Transparent lets Maura (and Shelly) off the hook when it shouldn’t. The closest the episode comes to acknowledging this deep complexity — and to Maura offering real penance for Josh’s grief and pain — is during the Hineni ceremony, as Rabbi Raquel begins to wrap things up. Maura interrupts her, and asks if she can say the Kaddish. Raquel is reluctant, but Maura plows on anyhow. It does not fix everything. It does not fix anything, because the situation is unfixable. But the prayer is an admission that Josh should feel grief. The whole family should feel grief. That’s something, at least.
Other characters, though, do get punished for their blindness. Enter Leslie, who pressures Ali to consider herself in ways that are probably healthy for two people in a relationship. But Leslie is so wrapped in her own self-righteousness that she cannot see the fundamental wrongness of yelling about Palestinian rights at a Jewish service. Sure, she was willing to walk away, and it wasn’t until some of the other Hineni participants pressed her that things got heated. And sure, it’s one of the most complex political and religious issues in … I don’t know, most of human history, I’d guess. But Leslie, c’mon now. She earned that spectacular stumble.
After the ceremony, Ali’s at home taking care of Leslie (by offering her some expired muscle relaxants and a Xanax), and whether it’s the pills or the sudden fall or something else, Leslie confesses that she’s falling in love with her. You’d think this would be great news, given Ali’s recent admission that she doesn’t want Leslie to sleep with other people, but she’s distinctly nonplussed. Meanwhile, Josh is about to set out on a road trip to give Colton some of Rita’s ashes, but not before swinging by Silver Reign to watch Shea dance.
And somewhere, Shelly is prepping “To Shel and Back” as an audition piece for the next Hineni.